Many news outlets are doing far less accountability reporting than in the past, bad news indeed for the public. New nonprofit investigative ventures have emerged, but they can’t pick up the slack by themselves.
By Mary Walton
Mary Walton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her most recent book, “A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August.
This article was funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute.
On her last day at Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel, Mc Nelly Torres knew another round of layoffs was in the works. She went out for coffee, came back and said a prayer. The phone rang and a familiar name flashed on the screen. It was the editor they called the "Angel of Death." Earlier in the day, Torres learned she had won a Green Eyeshade Award in consumer reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, her second in as many years. Now she was out of a job.
Roberta Baskin, director of the investigative team at WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., was waiting to take the bus back from New York City, where she had collected her third duPont-Columbia Award. Her cell phone rang. It was her news director telling her she had been let go, along with 24 other employees.
Tom Dubocq didn't wait for the ax to fall. At the Palm Beach Post, an era of fat budgets was dissolving like lard in a hot frying pan. In a single month in 2008, the staff of roughly 300 was reduced to 170, greased by a buyout offer that included health benefits for life. Dubocq's prize-winning probes of local corruption had put three county commissioners and assorted others in jail. He had his eye on a fourth commissioner, but instead signed up for the buyout. He was, he says, making too much money. "I knew ultimately I would get laid off. It was time to make the move."
What happens, I ask Dubocq, when people like him vanish from the newsrooms of America?
"The bad guys get away with stuff."
Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether. Assigned to cover multiple beats, multitasking backpacking reporters no longer have time to sniff out hidden stories, much less write them. In Washington, bureaus that once did probes have shrunk, closed and consolidated.
The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009. (After a vigorous membership drive, this year the number climbed above 4,000.) Prize-seekers take note: Applications for Pulitzers are down more than 40 percent in some investigative categories, a drop reflected in other competitions.
"There is no question that there are fewer investigative reporters in the U.S. today than there were a few years ago, mirroring the overall loss of journalists at traditional media outlets," says IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit. While he concedes that the situation is alarming, Horvit points to positive developments. New organizations dedicated to investigative and watchdog coverage have sprung up, and some mainstream news outlets are renewing a commitment that had been lost.
In July, a major investigative project underscored the importance of journalists as watchdogs of democracy: the Washington Post series "Top Secret America," on the nation's bloated security establishment. Would that more journalists had been on duty when subprime mortgage peddlers were running amok and the federal Minerals Management Service was sitting on a potential oil disaster.
"Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty," Andrew Jackson declared in his 1837 Farewell Address. But what if the people don't know what's going on? "All citizens have a right to petition the government for redress of grievances," former Newsday Editor Anthony J. Marro, a onetime investigative reporter and a champion of accountability journalism, told a gathering of the Vermont ACLU last year, "but, as simplistic as it sounds, without a strong press they often don't know what the grievances are."
Elevated to hero status after two Washington Post reporters helped bring down a corrupt U.S. president and his cronies, investigative reporters enjoyed a golden era from the late 1970s into the 2000s. In cities blessed with activist media, reporters took aim at corruption, waste, incompetence and injustice in politics, government, charities and corporations. Cameras confronted culprits. An aroused populace demanded change. People went to jail; old laws were rewritten and new ones passed. Competition for investigative prizes swelled; others came into being.
The annual conferences of IRE, organized in 1975, were like revival meetings, infusing adherents with new energy and skills, and winning converts to the craft. Big names like Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer and My Lai hero Seymour Hersh drew rock-star crowds. Newspapers and networks came looking for talent, and reporters came armed with résumés and clips. Free newspapers greeted early morning risers. The conference still draws well, but some of the bells and whistles are silent. At this year's conference, attended by 800, not even the host — the Las Vegas Sun — gave away copies.
Never has there been a greater need for probing coverage of the multiple ways in which the public is victimized. But as corporations sprawl across continents and government grows more complex, media resources shrink. The year 2008 was brutal for the nation's press. Some 5,900 daily print journalists dropped off the rolls, according to the annual count by the American Society of News Editors. And 2009 wasn't much better. Another 5,200 jobs disappeared. Meanwhile, in 2008 local television news shed 1,200 jobs, a 4.3 percent decline, according to a Radio Television Digital News Association survey. The slide tapered off in 2009; just 400 people lost their jobs. In network news, however,
ABC alone cut 400 jobs in March of this year; CBS had already let 70 go.
The shrinking rosters represent a two-front assault on investigative reporting. Investigations take time, lots of time. With much smaller staffs doing much more work in a multimedia era, it becomes harder to spring reporters from their day jobs to tackle important but labor-intensive probes. And with fewer reporters to go around, news outlets are much more likely to abolish investigative slots than the City Hall and police beats.
In the army of the Fourth Estate, full-time investigative reporters have always been the elite special forces. Frequently, though, investigations have been carried out by the foot soldiers — beat reporters who come across a good lead and lobby for permission to pursue it. Decades ago at the Philadelphia Inquirer under Executive Editor Gene Roberts, when the paper was known as a prize-winning machine, only Barlett and Steele were detailed to full-time investigations. Says Roberts, "If there was anyone who came up with a good story, they had a reasonable chance of pursuing it at the Inquirer, and you did not have to be part of a team."
But fewer and fewer foot soldiers are on patrol.
In 1999, Tom Brune joined Newsday's Washington bureau to cover the U.S. Justice Department and do investigations. With a dozen or more reporters in the office, he had time to look into racial disparity in death row prosecutions, post-9/11 anti-terrorism strategies and relations between Muslim communities and law enforcement. Today, Brune is the Washington bureau, holed up in an 8-by-8 office in the E.W. Scripps suite. When I spoke to him, he had spent 12 of the previous 14 days reporting on the Times Square bomber. "Last year I don't think I even came close to a project," he says.
In 2001, Brune's wife, Deborah Nelson, was at the Washington Post, running a metro I-Team, when then-Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll lured her to his Washington bureau with an offer to head an eight-member investigative unit. Nelson arrived with a deep reservoir of experience from investigative reporting at five papers. A past president of IRE, she had won a Pulitzer while at the Seattle Times for uncovering widespread irregularities in the federal Indian Housing Program.
But four years later, unable to stem a tide of cutbacks at the paper, Carroll stepped down, and Nelson left in 2006. After the 2008 election, Tribune Co., which owns the L.A. Times, merged the Washington bureaus of its eight newspapers into a single operation that today employs 34 journalists, fewer than were in the Times bureau alone. Just one is a full-time investigative reporter.
Nelson now writes books and teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. At the time she left, "Everybody was so hung up on looking backward and holding on to what we had," Nelson says. "And I thought, 'We're not going to be able to hold on to what we've had. So where can I be where I can make a difference?' I wanted to figure out how to keep the craft alive."
While the overall picture may be dismal, there is one very bright spot on the horizon: the rise of nonprofit news outlets committed to investigative reporting. Alarmed by the decline at established media organizations, foundations and other philanthropists have moved to fill the void. (See "The Nonprofit Explosion")
Herbert and Marion Sandler, California banking billionaires with a history of supporting liberal causes, launched ProPublica in 2008 with a pledge of up to $30 million over three years; they hired former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger to run it. Steiger in turn lured Stephen Engelberg from Portland's Oregonian to be managing editor of the new venture, and they filled a newsroom in Manhattan's financial district with a mixture of veteran reporters and promising newcomers.
Meanwhile, two existing nonprofits, the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, are experiencing growth spurts. CPI is known for strip mining databases for story leads. And a track record filled with powerful stories based on the data they contain has given the center credibility. Says Executive Director Bill Buzenberg, a former vice president of National Public Radio, "We love databases no one else has looked at."
CIR is headed by Robert J. Rosenthal, a onetime editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who in 2007 left his post as managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle over the issue of staff cutbacks. Under his leadership, CIR has spun off a regional investigative operation called California Watch with a staff of 17, including 11 reporters. For an editor turned fundraiser, Rosenthal has proved to be a rainmaker, raising some $6.5 million in 18 months.
In addition, a dozen or so smaller operations around the country, such as Voice of San Diego, Texas Watchdog, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, have sprung up as hard-hitting local journalism has declined at many traditional media outlets.
For their part, leading legacy outlets lay claim to a continuing commitment to ambitious watchdog work. "I don't think we've taken the hit people assume," says Marc Duvoisin, deputy managing editor for projects at the Los Angeles Times, whose parent company is in bankruptcy. Certainly, he says, the closing of an independent Washington bureau with its own I-Team dented the paper's capacity for tough national reporting. But the Times, he adds, still does high-impact national pieces, citing its stories on Toyota's safety defects (see "Capital Flight").
The Times metro desk has an investigative unit of a half dozen with its own editor, and the paper creates ad hoc teams for specific projects. Moreover, notes Duvoisin, because the breaking news that once filled the paper now flows straight to the Times Web site, the local news section includes fewer incremental items and more accountability reporting. These days, he says, the paper is focused on "classic local investigations." He says he handles so many projects that "I'm busier than I've ever been."
At the New York Times, where Matthew Purdy is in his seventh year of running an investigative unit with the help of two deputy editors, the number of reporters has grown from seven to 11. His team tends to work on national and foreign projects, while the metro and Washington staffs do their own investigations. "The Times has made a decision that we have to have an aggressive and growing commitment to investigative reporting," Purdy says. "The whole notion is that we need to present people with stories they can't get elsewhere." And the Times can do that, he acknowledges, because "we have the incredible luxury of talent, time and space."
In July, the Washington Post's Dana Priest, who along with fellow Post reporter Anne Hull won a Pulitzer with a 2008 exposé of substandard care for veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, hit another home run with "Top Secret America," a two-year investigation of the government's out-of-control terrorist-tracking community. The series, which Priest wrote with William M. Arkin, restored some luster to a paper that had sharply reduced its staff, lost some of its top reporters and closed its national bureaus.
It was, in its scope, an echo of the past. "You are betting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of reporter, editor and programmer time on this," ProPublica's Engelberg, who once oversaw investigations at the New York Times, told the blog bigthink.com. "It's the kind of thing that people in the fat years did occasionally, and in the thin years they do even less occasionally."
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who has presided over a greatly diminished staff since his arrival two years ago, pledged continued support for accountability journalism. "We understand that in some cases it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of resources to do it well, but we will continue to do it," Brauchli told Politico. And to do it, Jeff Leen, the assistant managing editor in charge of the Post's investigative unit, says he has a "very robust team" of seven investigative reporters, along with a Web projects editor and a computer-assisted reporting specialist, a number that has changed little over the 11 years he has been in charge. In addition, he says, there "are investigative reporters on virtually every desk" at the paper, including at least three on metro and four or five on the national staff.
In Philadelphia, the Inquirer under Editor Bill Marimow has managed during bankruptcy to produce occasional long form probes of the sort that characterized the paper's heyday in the 1970s and '80s, when Marimow won two of the paper's 17 Pulitzers.
The projects and enterprise team not only remains intact at the Dallas Morning News but has grown because of the paper's commitment to watchdog reporting, says Deputy Managing Editor Maud Beelman, who presides over an operation that employs 12 reporters and two additional editors. Like so many other papers, the Morning News has been hit hard by buyouts and layoffs (see "The Dallas Mourning News,"). "None of my reporters took buyouts, and none of them were laid off," Beelman says. "It's definitely true that there have been places that have taken a hit on their investigative teams. I'm happy I'm not working at one of those places."
There are others where the accountability torch still burns, notably the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel , the Oregonian and the Seattle Times.
National Public Radio has created an eight-member investigative unit and hired Susanne Reber from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to oversee it (see "NPR Gears Up"). And Gannett proclaimed 2010 "the Year of the Watchdog," sent 70 reporters to this year's IRE conference in Las Vegas and, through its foundation, is underwriting eight $5,000 prizes for digital innovation in investigative journalism.
"I think watchdog journalism will end up being our saving grace in the newspaper industry," says David Ledford, executive editor of Gannett's Wilmington News Journal. "I hope editors and publishers will invest in it, because we can do it better than anybody else." As evidence of his paper's commitment, he sent me eight front pages chockablock with meaty stories.
During the 2008 recession, editor Paul D'Ambrosio's investigations team at Gannett's Asbury Park Press shrank to a lone reporter. Today he supervises five. This year the Press was a Pulitzer finalist in the public service category for a multipart report on the damaging consequences of New Jersey's sky-high property taxes.
At Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, despite some reports to the contrary, investigative reporter Steve Stecklow says, "I've been assured repeatedly since the change in ownership that the Wall Street Journal remains committed to investigative reporting." He notes that after the Boston bureau was downsized last year, the only two staffers who remained were he and another investigative reporter.
Unlike beat or bureau reporters, investigative journalists are difficult to count. They often are people on beats. In one effort, students at Arizona State University queried the country's hundred largest newspapers in 2006 and found that just 39 percent had an investigative or project team. Of the 61 percent that didn't, 16 percent said there had been one in the past. Thirty-seven percent reported they had no full-time reporters devoted to projects or investigations. Sixty-two percent had no editor charged with overseeing investigations.
In 2008, thinking to update the Arizona survey, Brant Houston, a former IRE executive director who holds the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, polled the country's 50 largest papers by e-mail. He believed that documenting the attrition in I-Teams might entice foundations to finance the rising crop of nonprofits. But answers were hard to come by in an environment ravaged by downsizing.
When he followed up his initial query, Houston sometimes discovered that his contact was no longer employed. Others wanted confidentiality, fearing that "if they pointed out what was happening, they'd be laid off or fired." He was able to establish that at 20 papers, more than half had eliminated or reduced the ranks of investigative reporters. Summarizing his work in Daedalus last spring, he noted that the Rocky Mountain News had just folded and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had pared back to a much smaller online operation. Both papers had been known for their strong commitment to investigative journalism.
When a local TV station wants to cut expenses, a distinguished record is no protection. In a long career as an investigative reporter in both local and network news, Roberta Baskin reaped some 75 awards. She was perhaps best known for a 1996 report on the CBS newsmagazine "48 Hours" detailing Nike's exploitation of workers in Vietnam. After Baskin protested against news and sportscasters wearing the Nike Swoosh on their jackets while broadcasting the Nike-sponsored 1998 Olympics, she was demoted to CBS' morning program. She moved on to ABC and then spent a year with Bill Moyers at PBS before WJLA wooed her back to the place where she had started out in Washington some 20 years earlier.
The duPont-Columbia award she received on the eve of her dismissal from WJLA was for a report titled "Digging for Dollars," an exposé of a chain of pediatric dental clinics that preyed on Medicaid children. Acting on a tip, Baskin discovered weeping children strapped to "papoose boards" as they underwent root canals and other unnecessary procedures while their parents were kept in the waiting room. The chain eventually settled a suit with the U.S. Justice Department for $24 million.
Many of Baskin's stories began with tips, and some viewers continue to track her down in her current post as senior communications adviser in the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Inspector General. "I don't know how they find me."
Today, among the four network affiliates in the nation's capital, Tisha Thompson of WTTG, the Fox outlet, says she is the only reporter dedicated to investigations. Tisha is the daughter of Lea Thompson, a highly decorated former correspondent for "Dateline NBC," one of a half dozen hour-long network newsmagazines that typically featured an investigative segment. Now just CBS' iconic "60 Minutes" and PBS' "Frontline" routinely air investigations. "Dateline," which once appeared five times weekly, surfaces much less frequently and serves up a diet of crime, celebrities and health. Last year, a "Dateline" investigation was a finalist for an IRE award, says Lea Thompson, an IRE board member, but aggressive reporting is rare. Primetime is episodic. CBS's former "48 Hours" is now "48 Hours Mystery"; ABC's "20/20" focuses on celebrities; and CBS' "60 Minutes II" went off the air in 2005.
Says Lea Thompson, "I think Americans said, 'We'd rather watch reality TV.' "
Although no statistics exist, Stacey Woelfel, news director of KOMU-TV at the University of Missouri, says the cutbacks in broadcast I-Teams began as far back as the 1980s, and likely hit a low point by 1990. As newscasts expanded, stations hired producers but cannibalized the reporting staffs. "Stations didn't care about being able to differentiate themselves." The investigative reporting team was a luxury.
Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute's broadcast specialist, once ran a projects team of 12 people at a Nashville station. "The days when you could just disappear for months, those are pretty slim," he says. And so are investigative reports that exceed five minutes.
Where investigative reporting was entrenched, however, it has tended to remain strong. Tompkins, a juror for the 2010 duPont-Columbia awards, ticks off a dozen local stations that he says fall into that category. And certainly anyone viewing the winners would have to agree that some stations are doing outstanding work. In the end, the juries singled out six, the highest number in two decades.
The Tampa Tribune once had both an I-Team and a culture in which beat reporters were expected to produce investigative stories. Former reporter Vickie Chachere says that in the first month on her job in 1989, "I was taught how to use the Florida public records law. If you covered city council you were not just to go to meetings. You were expected to dig things up." She investigated for-profit nursing homes, the state prison system, juvenile justice.
When Janet Coats took over as executive editor of the Media General-owned paper in 2005, she disbanded the I-Team. Like many editors, she believes that the best investigations originate on beats where knowledgeable, plugged-in reporters detect situations that seem problematic. Their coverage of breaking news, she says, "illuminates systemic cracks in the institutions of state."
There were cheers inside the newsroom when the I-Team was gutted, says one staffer who was there. Blessed with the luxury to pursue long form stories in an era of diminishing resources, team members were known derisively as the "golden notebook crowd."
Coats' solution was to pair former I-Team members with reporters who could profit from their expertise, but her plan backfired when the Florida housing bubble broke, the economy skidded downward and the Tribune newsroom staff shrank from 300 to 180. "From a practical standpoint," Coats says, "someone would get sick, we didn't have enough bodies, so those people got pulled into the breaking news."
Her staff became obsessed with survival. Reporters asked themselves, Coats says, "Why should I throw myself into something when I don't know if I'm going to be there tomorrow?" The need for constant Web updates and multimedia input put even more pressure on reporters. Says Coats, who resigned last year and is now a consultant for a Florida foundation, "I would hear all the time, 'There's just so much that needs to be done.' The Tribune was a close newsroom, with a sense of shared responsibility. [Staffers would say,] 'How can I ask for extra time to do this when Joe's sitting over there doing four stories?' "
As the Tampa Tribune staff shrank, Coats says, the paper suffered a serious decline in "community expertise and institutional knowledge." And that was a problem as the Washington Post pruned its ranks, says Susan Schmidt. A Pulitzer Prize winner whose stories helped send corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff to jail and lifted the curtain on Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, Schmidt joined more than 100 coworkers in taking a buyout in 2008. As far as she was concerned, it was too hard to get her work into print, and resources were drying up.
At one time, she says, "there was a range of age and expertise in the newsroom. People learned from one another." Almost always when she tackled a big story, "it was something I didn't know very much about." If she needed to know about "securitization," say, "there were people who could help me."
Recently, a story that led the Post business page suggested that Armando Falcon Jr., former chief federal regulator overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was yet another government official cashing out to work for big bankers who tanked the economy. In fact, Schmidt says, Falcon was a hero who tried to rein in the financial giants, only to be axed in 2004 at the behest of politicians on the House Banking Committee. A few years ago, she says, editors and other reporters would have jumped in to set the record straight, but not now. "That's the kind of institutional memory that's missing." (The Post did not respond to a request for comment.)
Older, more experienced and better paid, investigative reporters are often the first to go in a downsizing. The lucky ones like Schmidt are offered buyouts. Joe Demma was not so fortunate. A veteran of Newsday, where he was an editor or reporter on three Pulitzer-winning stories, Demma had been at Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel for four years, supervising an investigative team of four reporters, when he got the bad news. It was a Friday in July 2008, and he and his wife were preparing for a road trip. Demma was in his office when his boss at the Tribune Co.-owned paper came in and told him layoffs were coming the following week. "I just want you to know your job has been terminated." Demma told his staff and canceled the trip. He was 65, and with just seven weeks of severance pay, money was an issue. "I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life."
Demma looked for a job both inside and outside the news business for two years after he left the paper. Nobody cared about the three Pulitzers on his résumé. He did a stint for the U.S. Census Bureau. It reminded him of when he was a young reporter, "knocking on doors and asking people questions they didn't want to answer." Today he works for a company that publishes corporate histories. "A sentence is a sentence. Put a few of them together and you get a paragraph."
A pronounced decrease in Pulitzer entries for investigative probes suggests the degree to which papers are abandoning the genre. From 1985 to 2010, entries in the investigative category dropped 21 percent, from 103 to 81; in the public service category, the decline was an even steeper 43 percent, from 122 to 70; and for the explanatory category, where investigative work often surfaces, the drop was also 43 percent, from 181 to 104.
A similar decline has taken place in entries for USC Annenberg's $35,000 Selden Ring Award. Since 2005, when there were 88 applications, the number has fallen nearly every year, to 64 in 2010. IRE contest entries also have dropped, from 563 in 2005 to 455 in 2009. Administrators for the Worth Bingham and Goldsmith awards report their numbers are holding steady.
Although a drop in the number of investigations is the obvious explanation, there may be another factor at work. Lois Norder, managing editor/news of McClatchy's Fort Worth Star-Telegram, points out that entering multiple contests with converging deadlines is very "labor intensive." In the past, "we always had someone to help with that, and we lost that position." Meanwhile, her own workload has grown. Last winter, she told the staff the paper would enter only the contest sponsored by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors. "I don't like to let the reporters down by not entering, but it came down to, 'Am I going to see that the newspaper gets done, or am I going to enter the contests?'"
This year Daniel Gilbert, who covers courts at Media General's Bristol Herald Courier, won the Pulitzer for public service for an eight-part series on how the mismanagement of gas royalties in rural Southwest Virginia has deprived thousands of landowners of millions in royalties.
The 30,000-circulation Herald Courier, with a staff of seven news reporters, is housed in a one-story building sandwiched between a fast food restaurant and a welding company on a side street in Bristol, Virginia. Gilbert's award was hailed as proof that any paper, no matter how small, can produce a high caliber investigation. That's the message that Gilbert, 28, is eager to spread. "If the story is big enough, you'll find a way," he says. "That's what newspapers do that no other institution does."
But not every paper has a Dan Gilbert, an unattached, trilingual (English, French, Spanish) graduate of the University of Chicago, willing to spend his evenings poring over a textbook on mineral law, GAO reports and FOIA documents. He concedes that "driven" would be a "fair description" of his character. Nor can reporters bank on an editor as supportive as J. Todd Foster, a staunch advocate for investigative reporting, who sanctioned Gilbert's 150-mile roundtrips over twisting mountain roads to the oil and gas fields and sent him to a training seminar in computer-assisted reporting. (Foster has since left the paper to become executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.)
The award to the Herald Courier, however inspirational, is clearly the exception in a Pulitzer landscape increasingly dominated by the nation's largest papers. My husband, Charles Layton, a longtime AJR contributor, counted the investigative stories that have either won or been finalists for a Pulitzer over the past 25 years, including not just stories in the investigative reporting category but also those entered in other categories but that were clearly investigative in nature.
Until about 10 years ago, the honors were spread widely among papers throughout the country. The New York Times or the Washington Post typically appeared only once―or not at all―as a winner or finalist for an investigative story each year. However, in the past decade, those two papers plus the Los Angeles Times have eclipsed all others combined, sometimes accounting for more than half of all investigative stories that were honored. Papers that once appeared with some frequency on the list seem now to have lost either the will or the wherewithal to mount major investigations (see "Pulitzer Domination").
It is true that many newspapers never did and still don't do hard-nosed probes. But for some that once did quite a few, the new normal is one major project a year. That's the goal at the San Jose Mercury News, says Rick Tulsky, where the staff has shrunk from 400 to 100 and the building is filled with dark spaces once inhabited by reporters.
When Tulsky arrived at the Mercury News in 2000 with a Pulitzer to his credit, "there was an investigative team of which I was one of four reporters, and there was a supplemental enterprise team of another seven, plus three editors. There was a pretty good flow of stuff at all times." The I-Team is gone. Now he is the investigations editor, the last man standing. "All that is now replaced by me plus any reporters I can borrow off beats." Are things different? Silly question. Replies Tulsky, "How can it be the same?"
In July, the MediaNews-owned paper published the results of a yearlong study of 10,000 bills before the California Legislature. It found that 60 percent of those that had become law in the previous legislative session had been written and promoted by lobbyists representing special interests. But such stories, Tulsky says, were more frequent when there was a dedicated team.
This year the Roanoke Times analyzed 266 fatal crashes on Interstate 81 in western Virginia, broke them down by whether a truck was involved, and plotted the location of each one on a highway graphic. Web-goers could click on a data point and view the circumstances of each accident. "We need to do at least one big hit like that a year," says Carole Tarrant, editor of the Landmark-owned daily. She adds, "One year we did three. It was great, but it just about killed everybody."
"I give my friends at the Roanoke Times credit for continuing to do deep stories when many papers their size barely try," wrote reporter Mary Bishop, who worked at the Times from 1983 to 2001, in response to my query. "But they're nowhere close to the numbers they did 10-15 years ago and far fewer than 20 years ago... We plowed national ground for years, doing stories bigger papers hadn't noticed and ones that most papers our size lacked the courage, ambition and imagination to attempt. Who's going to tell those stories now?"
When the Rocky Mountain News folded last February, News reporter Laura Frank was interviewed by Brooke Gladstone of NPR's "On the Media." Frank's 2008 series "Deadly Denial" revealed the roadblocks for workers at federal nuclear weapons installations seeking compensation for illnesses caused by radiation and chemical exposure. The articles drew national attention when they were spotlighted on "Exposé," a series produced by WNET, New York City's PBS affiliate.
"So, what stories were you working on the week the paper went under?" Gladstone asked.
Replied Frank, "We had stories ready to go about a government agency that had allegedly misused public money. We had a story about how children in state custody were being abused. And we had a story about a bus driver in Denver who was helping an elderly lady and her daughter across the street when he was hit by another vehicle, and the State Patrol gave him a ticket for jaywalking. Our reporter was ready to write that the bus driver was actually in the legal crosswalk; he should never have been given the ticket at all."
The author of the "jaywalking" story was transportation writer Kevin Flynn. "In the world of Watergate, this was not big investigative journalism," he told me. But he was determined to clear the name of bus driver Jim Moffett just the same. He knew Moffett had performed his rescue operation in an unmarked intersection crosswalk, where pedestrians nevertheless had a legal right to cross. After Flynn questioned the Colorado State Patrol, the jaywalking ticket was withdrawn. But his paper folded before the story could run. Even so, Flynn took photos of the accident scene and interviewed witnesses. Flynn posted his story clearing Moffett the Monday after the paper's demise on iwantmyrocky.com, which staff members had launched a few months earlier to solicit public support to save the paper. Flynn later started his own blog (inside-lane.com) to continue reporting on transportation issues.
Flynn is now the public information officer for the Denver Regional Transportation District. And Frank, hoping to tell those untold stories, has jumped into the brave new world of nonprofit online journalism. She is "executive director, chief fundraiser and janitor" at the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, "I-News" for short. Her nonprofit newborn is a member of Investigative News Network, a coalition of nonprofits that formed in July 2009 with some 20 members and by late August had 40.
Nonprofit investigative journalism has been around at least since 1977, when Lowell Bergman helped found the Center for Investigative Reporting. He went on to a career in network news at ABC and CBS and was a producer at "60 Minutes" for 14 years. His investigation of the tobacco industry furnished the storyline for the film "The Insider," but the movie won him no friends at CBS. Today he is a producer for "Frontline." Embedded at the University of California, Berkeley, he also teaches and godfathers baby nonprofits.
In 1989, another "60 Minutes" producer, Charles Lewis, walked out on a golden career and established the Center for Public Integrity, dismayed, he wrote at the time, that even with 4,000 reporters in Washington, "not much muckraking is actually going on."
Both organizations have capitalized on the current crisis in investigative reporting to expand their operations, and on the Internet to expand their reach. Today, CPI under public radio veteran Bill Buzenberg employs 47 people in a suite of offices overlooking Washington's Farragut Square. Meanwhile, Lewis has moved to American University, where he started another nonprofit, the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
One of CPI's more successful recent ventures was a series on campus assault by Kristen Lombardi and Kristin Jones published in 2009 and 2010. The CPI reporters surveyed 152 campus crisis service centers and clinics, built two databases containing legal and administrative complaints, analyzed existing government databases and eventually interviewed nearly 50 students who said they had been raped or sexually assaulted.
The project became a template for how nonprofits working in tandem can catapult an issue onto the national stage. NPR piggybacked its own stories onto the investigation, which was also a natural for the country's campus-based public radio stations. Five nonprofits developed local stories based on additional reporting (see Drop Cap). Laura Frank's Rocky Mountain I-News exposed the refusal of authorities at the University of Colorado to name a fraternity allegedly linked to date rape drug use.
According to a CPI tally, the project was featured by 49 newspapers and magazines, 56 broadcast outlets, 77 online outlets, 60 student newspapers and college-related outlets and 42 NGOs. Says Buzenberg, "Forty million people saw, read or heard some part of it."
Based not far from the University of California, Berkeley, the Center for Investigative Reporting recently launched California Watch, a multimedia investigative operation. To direct the fledgling operation, CIR Executive Director Robert Rosenthal recruited Mark Katches, who oversaw three Pulitzer finalists and two winners in eight years of investigative editing at the Orange County Register and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Katches made the move partly for personal reasons — he and his wife are native Californians — and partly for the chance to work with Rosenthal, "a truly inspirational figure." It might seem counterintuitive to laud the security of a news operation that has to plead for money, but at the center, Katches says, "We have our budget set for the next two years. Newsrooms are living quarter to quarter and in some cases month to month."
With a budget of $4 million, CIR doesn't come close to matching the wealth of ProPublica, which harvests up to $10 million each year from the Sandler Foundation and in the first six months of this year added $3.2 million from other funders. In its short history, ProPublica has established a high profile by hiring the kind of staff who reap awards and make foundations happy. In addition to Sheri Fink's Pulitzer for a probe into questionable deaths at a New Orleans hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (a joint project with the New York Times Magazine), ProPublica's T. Christian Miller won the Selden Ring Award for a story on how civilian contractors injured in war zones must battle for basic medical care. Five former L.A. Times reporters are on ProPublica's roster. "What new model?" asks the Times' Duvoisin. "It's the old model. They just go out and find the best reporters and hire them. We've lost a lot of stars."
However admirable their efforts, it is hard to see the foundation-funded groups making up for the loss of so many watchdog reporters from mainstream news jobs any time soon. The three largest nonprofits total somewhere between 80 and 100 editorial employees, not all of them reporters. I also canvassed the Web sites of additional Investigative News Network members, adding up editorial staff at outlets that say they focus on investigations, and came up with a generous count of 70, including researchers, editors and copy editors. Lines between freelancers and staff were not always clear. If only full-time investigative reporters from all the nonprofits were thrown together in a single room, I think you would have an I-Team of no more than 100.
Located in metropolitan areas, often tucked away on university campuses, these groups are geographically concentrated and isolated; how could they ever take the place of the local reporters who once uncovered fire hazards in Providence or court corruption in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands or malfeasance on the county commission in Escambia County, Florida?
Adding up the financial contributions to journalism nonprofits from 2006 to 2009, Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, found they totaled $141 million. During roughly the same period, Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute calculates that newspapers reduced their spending by $1.6 billion a year. Even though an online outlet is far cheaper to run and perhaps more tightly focused than a newspaper, the donations don't come close to filling the dollar gap. Concluded Edmonds, "New media at best appears to be covering a small fraction of the traditional news capacity lost."
Alan D. Mutter, a media consultant and former newspaper editor who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com), said at this year's Logan Investigative Reporting Seminar at Berkeley that even the finest nonprofits are "boutique operations that are picking certain stories and certain subject matter, and they're not going to replace the feet on the street, beat reporting, peering into all the nooks and crannies in the communities of this country the way the commercial traditional press has done." He concedes that the traditional press has not always done a good job of watchdog reporting, that in fact "sometimes it's done an awful job." But the nonprofits are "like chicken soup; they're going to do some good, but they're not replacing that which has been lost."
It is something of an irony that without the old-line media, the audience for foundation-funded stories would be meager. Just 30,000 people have signed up to receive e-mail blasts from ProPublica, equal to the circulation of the Bristol Herald Courier. Whether lifted from the Web site, or developed in concert with other outlets, its stories are free, and ProPublica urges other news organizations to "steal" them. Boasts its Web site, "We published 138 such stories in 2009 with 38 different partners."
Arlene Notoro Morgan, an associate dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was working with master's students in 2008 when the Washington Post won a public service Pulitzer for its Walter Reed stories. Morgan's students told her, "Oh, we know this story. It's been on salon.com for two years." But Salon author Mark Benjamin, Morgan notes, "didn't get any notice. No notice in the Pulitzers, nothing. It hit the Washington Post, and boing! The mainstream still gets noticed."
Benjamin himself lamented the neglect in "Reporting a Scandal When No One Bothers to Listen," an article in Nieman Reports. "It was as though until headlines blared from newsstands in the nation's capital, the trees in this forest weren't really falling."
So what is the future for online reporting when the media empires on which they often depend for readership are collapsing like Mesoamerican kingdoms? The online nonprofits have no greater supporter than Brant Houston. But he concedes that "it may not be the best strategic plan to hitch your wagons to outlets that are either getting smaller or disappearing."
Perhaps that explains why, according to General Manager Richard Tofel, ProPublica this year decided to publish more on its own Web site and extend its reach via social media.
Tenacious and resourceful, more than a few watchdog reporters have become private investigators. That includes Susan Schmidt, who first went to the Wall Street Journal after leaving the Washington Post. While there she met Glenn Simpson, who held what he describes as one of the "world's greatest journalism jobs." His beat was "open mandate financial investigation." Put another way, he had the freedom to write about "dirty money" in its many guises. After Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 2007, he says, "There was a lot of change and a lot of fear. My stories weren't going anywhere." Schmidt felt the same way. After less than a year at the Journal, she resigned. So did Simpson. They launched a firm that Simpson describes as "investigative journalism for rent." Clients, he says, are "people who think they've been ripped off or know about a crime and they're trying to interest media or the government. These people really have nowhere to turn or they get turned away. Our idea was they would turn to us."
After Tom Dubocq took a buyout at Cox's Palm Beach Post, a defense attorney told him his investigative skills were worth money. Lawyers could no longer get the information they used to find in newspapers. Like Schmidt and Simpson, Dubocq is a private investigator. A client might be a creditor who wants a rundown on his debtor's true financial resources, or a company doing due diligence on a potential business partner. Says Dubocq, "I get hired to find the money. I'm pretty good at it."
Mc Nelly Torres had worked at four newspapers by the time she landed at the Sun-Sentinel as she followed her husband, who was in the Army, from base to base. Her stories about a string of unsolved female murders in Comanche County, Oklahoma, prompted an FBI investigation; in South Carolina she wrote about industrial hog farms that skirted the law; as the education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, she covered four school districts where there was an abundance of waste and corruption. When she was laid off, she was covering issues related to gasoline sales, consumption and regulation.
She considers accountability journalism her calling. "Not everyone can do this," Torres says. "Not everybody likes to look at thousands of pages that make no sense. But I do."
Torres recently turned down an offer from a large daily. "I don't want to go back to a newspaper. They're not safe."
Instead she is laying the groundwork for a new nonprofit, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, dedicated to the kind of work she has done all her life. A major grant recently came through that will help with a fall launch. "If we don't do anything about this," she says, "investigative reporting is going to die."###